Brief Reading Notes: The Eagle of the Ninth, September Girls, Attachments, Bachelor Girl, The Neddiad & The Yggyssey
The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff: I read this too long ago to be able to do it justice, but I wanted to have some sort of record of the fact that I really, really enjoyed it. For those of you who don’t know, The Eagle of the Ninth is a children’s novel from 1954 set in Roman Britain. The story is about a young Roman soldier, Marcus, who becomes friends with Esca, his former slave. The two then embark on a journey to discover what happened to Marcus’ father, whose Ninth Legion disappeared somewhere beyond Hadrian’s Wall.
The Eagle of the Ninth is a fun historical adventure complete with mysteries, exciting flights, and plenty of details that make the setting come to life but never feel crammed in. The main reason why I enjoyed it, though, was Marcus and Esca’s relationship. Sutcliff depicts their growing intimacy with subtlety and grace, and she doesn’t shy away from examining the power negotiations inherent to a budding friendship between a free man and his former slave. Also, I’m just a sucker for stories about boys having feelings at each other, okay? Especially ones as open and unapologetic as this. It’s very easy to read Marcus and Esca’s relationship with slash goggles, and needless to say this is an interpretation I give two enthusiastic thumbs up to. But regardless of whether or not you read their relationship as romantic, I’m very interested in Sutcliff’s portrayal of emotional ties between boys as central to their lives.
I’m sure there are plenty of Rosemary Sutcliff fans out there, and my question to you is this: what should I read next? The rest of the Eagle of the Ninth series? Do these have to be read in order, by the way? Or should I perhaps try her Arthurian books? One of the historical stand-alones? Her adult novels? It’s very exciting that she has such a long backlist, but I could do with a little guidance.
September Girls by Bennett Madison: some of you might be aware of the fact that this is a novel that completely polarised readers: while some found it misogynist in the extreme, others read it as a subversive and thoughtful examination of gender and sexuality. Instead of rehashing these arguments, I’ll just wait for a little bit while you catch up with the above links. Done? Right: I do think that September Girls examines hegemonic masculinity and its potential to dehumanise girls and boys in pretty explicit ways; having said that, I wouldn’t exactly say that I was a huge fan. I was thrown off by the odd pacing, even though I get what Madison was trying to do with it. The story is set in a seaside town during the summer, and the closing scenes in particular hint that this is a place where time is somewhat disconnected from “real world” time. And even if you leave these supernatural elements aside, there’s also the sense of timelessness you get at the height of summer when you’re young, when the golden days seem to stretch on indefinitely and you feel nearly immortal. September Girls tries to evoke this, but the trouble is that for me the attempt became indistinguishable from clumsy pacing, and as a result I found myself bored and unengaged for most of the novel.
Also, for some reason before I even read it I paired September Girls with The Brides of Rollrock Island in my head, as they seemed to cover more or less similar territory. It turned out that they do, sort of, but the latter does it in a way I found infinitely more resonant, and so the comparison didn’t do poor September Girls any favours. But this is down to personal taste: a lot of people loved it, and perhaps you would too. Also, when I read interviews like this one I know I want to read Bennett Madison again despite my failure to really connect with this novel. I love everything he has to say about writing for teens:
There are also all these questions of influence when it comes to YA that I don't think are asked (or asked nearly as much) about books marketed to grown-ups. Do YA writers bear an added responsibility to educate or inspire because our books are aimed at younger readers? Are there ideas and themes and language that can be dangerous to our readers, who (some would argue) might not have the capacity to understand it?♥
These questions hinge, to me, on what's an essentially false premise: that adults are going to think critically about a book while teenagers will sort of just receive it unquestioningly. I don't think that's true at all—to me, teenagers are just as critical as any other readers. Maybe more critical.
Personally, I don't think a ton about the fact that I'm writing for a YA audience while I'm writing. I just try to write the book I want to write. Anyway, I'm not sure there's a huge difference between teen books and adult books in terms of the actual readership, at least not these days. Adults read YA and teenagers read adult books, so it's like, who cares?
Attachments by Rainbow Rowell: Can I just leave you with a “what Jenny said”? No? Alright, then: the premise of Attachments is the following: the year is 1999, the Internet is still new, and Lincoln has found a job as a web security guy for a local newspaper. Most people don’t realise this, but what his job actually consists of is reading his fellow employee’s e-mail to make sure they’re not doing anything they shouldn’t on company time. This is how he starts reading the personal e-mails two friends and co-workers, Beth and Jennifer, exchange multiple times a day. Lincoln becomes too engrossed in their lives to be able to give them the stern warning his job requires him to. Not only that, but he begins to fall in love with Beth. The trouble is, how do you approach a complete stranger whose personal e-mail you’ve been reading and tell them you should maybe get to know each other?
There’s probably an interesting story to be told about how a relationship can survive this kind of creepy beginning, or grow in such a way that something like this doesn’t define it, but sadly Attachments is not that novel. Lincoln obviously has misgivings about what he’s doing, but his self-awareness is not a proper stand-in for an actual exploration of the power imbalance brought about by his illicit knowledge of Beth. This almost goes beyond the invasion of privacy: the fact that he has her at such a disadvantage, and that she couldn’t possibly hope to overcome this until they had been together for quite some time.
Needless to say, I was a bit frustrated by the fact that Attachments doesn’t dig deeper when it comes to this imbalance. However, somehow Rainbow Rowell still managed to charm me. The romance is a lot sweeter than what the above would lead you to believe, the characterisation is excellent, and the ending is absolutely lovely — I still tear up when I think about the passage about “love that always leaves the lights on”. There’s a lot of potential here, as well as real insight about the nature of intimacy. When you read Attachments you can easily see how Rainbow Rowell went on to become the brilliant writer behind Fangirl and Eleanor & Park. (Three paragraphs later, I see that I really could have stopped at “what Jenny said”.)
Bachelor Girl by Betsy Israel: Once again, someone else has already said everything I’d like to say about this book, and said it better too — this time Aarti, who reviewed Bachelor Girl a few years back. Bachelor Girl is supposed to be a history of single women in the twentieth century, which sounds right up my alley. Israel does mostly two things: one, she examine the lives of working women in early twentieth-century New York (which makes sense, considering how closely entwined marriage and financial subsistence really were); and two, she attempts to analyse the lives of single women through pop culture icons, which unfortunately doesn’t always get to the bottom of the issue. As you can probably gather from this, the focus of the book is quite a bit narrower than you’d initially expect.
Bachelor Girl isn’t really a book about what the experience of being single was like for women throughout the decades, or a book about what else there was to their lives beyond being single, as no person’s life is defined by a single experience — which is what I wanted it to be. At the same time, though, it’s not really satisfying as a history of the portrayal of single women in twentieth-century pop culture either. It’s like it never quite decides whether it’s trying to be a cultural history or a social history, and as a result it feels lacking in both regards.
Lastly, I read The Neddiad and The Yggyssey by Daniel Pinkwater, the subtitles of which will probably give you a good feel for the books themselves: the first is “How Neddie Took the Train, Went to Hollywood, and Saved Civilization”, and the second “How Iggy Wondered What Happened to All the Ghosts, Found Out Where They Went, and Went There”. They’re technically part of a trilogy, but they’re really stand-alone stories featuring the same group of characters, though told from different points of view.
The allusions to The Illiad and The Odyssey in the titles may have you thinking of big epic adventures, but they’re mostly just part of Pinkwaters’ playfulness. In a way Ned and Yggy’s adventures are epic — they do, after all, involve saving the world — but what keeps you reading is the voice more than the plot. Pinkwater’s narrative voice is wonderfully warm and humorous, and the novels have a feel to them that puts me in mind of, say, Sharon Creech or Michael Chabon’s Summerland. It’s also a feel that I’d describe as very American, though I’m not sure that I can explain just what I mean by that. It’s about more than just the road trips or the landscape or the use of mythology — the best way I can put it is, if certain classic British children’s books are narrated by a kind grandmotherly figure, then American ones are narrated by a fun, cool, slightly eccentric uncle.
I’m very glad to have read Daniel Manus Pinkwater at long last: I kept seeing him mentioned as a favourite author by the likes of Neil Gaiman and Patrick Ness, and it turns out that he writes just the kind of big-hearted children’s novels you want to be reading through hard times.
(Have you blogged about any of these books? Let me know and I'll be happy to link to you.)
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